A Full-Swing Jazz Resurgence is Drawing on Detroit’s Rich Music Culture

The music legends and venues, both old and new, that are defining the genre locally
Ralphe Armstrong // Photographs by Justin Maconochie

Ralphe Armstrong is pissed. This enormously gifted musician, considered by many to be the finest jazz bassist on Earth — a performer so talented that he earned a gig playing with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra at the age of 16, straight out of Interlochen Arts Academy — is a Detroiter through and through. Born and raised. He’s extremely proud of that. In fact, he submits the reason he’s so good may be “because I was born in Detroit. That had a lot to do with it.”

And when Detroit doesn’t receive its full propers as a jazz music empire, particularly from people who live here and should know better? Oooh, it makes him mad!

“Please put this in the magazine!” implores the ever-flamboyant Armstrong, now in his 50s. “I get really upset when I hear about Detroit companies that sell ‘jazz tour packages’ and take people to Chicago or New Orleans, when we’ve got more musicians here than any other part of the United States! New Orleans don’t have a third of the jazz musicians we got here! We come from a very rich tradition.”

Ralphe, maybe the complication is, we have too much music. In the city that created Motown, refined gospel, symbolized rock ’n’ roll, and invented techno, it’s simple to see how jazz might slip occasionally in our sonic popularity poll. But it could never be completely overlooked.

From the 1920s era of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, viewed by some historians as the first swing band, up through the likes of James Carter, Kenny Garrett, and Geri Allen today, jazz is deeply embedded in this town’s collective DNA … as in Detroit’s Native Artistry.

A Labor (Day) of Love

The Detroit Jazz Festival, the Labor Day weekend institution celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, is the most visible and glittering manifestation of our city’s love for America’s indigenous sound. The world’s largest free jazz festival lures music lovers of every age, race, sex, and level of hipness to the Detroit riverfront by the thousands for four dizzying days of local and international acts, led in 2014 by saxophonist/artist-in-residence Joshua Redman. It’s a cultural touchstone — and a considerable economic boon since nearly a quarter of attendees come from out of town.

“It’s one of those great Detroit experiences,” enthuses jazz saxophonist Chris Collins, in his third year as the festival’s artistic director. “There’s a unique vibe anyone will tell you about when they’re down there. It’s not just artsy; it’s like a family thing.

“People are experiencing this high art, and they’re coming from all over Detroit, all over the country, not just because of the great music but the way we set it up. We don’t have a Ferris wheel and 25 different kinds of doughnuts. It’s all about the music.”

The theme of this year’s Detroit Jazz Festival is “Jazz Speaks for Life.” Fitting, since in some local cliques jazz is life. For all of its luster, however, the festival only scratches the surface of the extent to which jazz permeates Detroit.

Legendary Locations, New Hot Spots

Take Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, “the world’s oldest jazz club” that’s looking to expand to a second, showroom-sized venue for the first time in its 80-year history. Or Cliff Bell’s, the sophisticated Art-Deco throwback on Detroit’s Park Avenue voted 2014’s Best Jazz Club by Hour Detroit readers. Or the Dirty Dog Jazz Café, the impossibly posh, 65-seat Grosse Pointe boîte owned by Carhartt heiress and jazz festival benefactor Gretchen Valade.

Baker’s Keyboard Lounge

“Visiting artists who go around the world and play everywhere have told me they don’t know of anyplace else like this that exists,” says the Dirty Dog Jazz Café’s publicist and Detroit music veteran Matt Lee. “Her model would work nowhere else in the real world.”

Or consider Bert’s Marketplace in Eastern Market, home to legendary Thursday night jam sessions for 14 years. Then there’s the Jazz Café inside the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, The Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Paradise Jazz Series at Orchestra Hall, free summer “Jazz on the Riverwalk” Thursdays at Roberts Riverwalk Hotel, and live musical performances at the Carr Center, where Detroit’s national treasure, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, is the master artist-in-residence.

According to the website detroit.jazznearyou.com, there are more than 175 venues in the metro area and Ann Arbor that feature jazz music on a regular or frequent basis. Add a down-the-street record company, Mack Avenue Records, which specializes in the genre and owns the subsidiary label Detroit Music Factory spotlighting local artists.

Detroit’s indestructible Democrat, U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., has introduced numerous jazz-oriented bills in Congress, including one designating the music “a rare and valuable national American treasure.” Around here it really is “all that jazz,” and while the sound never fades from earshot in Detroit, indications are that it’s thundering back like a Gayelynn McKinney drum solo.

“Detroit is the mecca for jazz in the United States,” declares Armstrong, whose bass mentors were DownBeat Hall of Famer Ron Carter and Motown immortal James Jamerson. “If you look at the history of the jazz culture, Detroit has turned out more prominent jazz musicians than any other part of the world. And there’s more talent here now than … I don’t know, it must be something in the water, man.”

An ‘Acquired Taste’

Perhaps one reason it doesn’t remain top of mind with John Q. Motor City as Armstrong would like is because “Jazz is an acquired taste,” posits Charles Boles, the octogenarian Detroit piano master who released his debut CD in 2013 on the Detroit Music Factory imprint.

“It ain’t like ‘hurry-up-and-get-to-me-now’ hip-hop or party music. Jazz is on the same level as classical music,” Boles says. “Kids go study classical music, and that’s a lifetime study. Jazz is a lifetime study, too.

“I don’t want to talk about hip-hop or rap, but that ain’t no lifetime study, brother!” he adds. “I know people making music out there making tons of money, and they wouldn’t know an eighth note if it beat them across the head with a pipe.”

Bert’s Marketplace

Pianist Bill Meyer, the former musical director for Martha Reeves and current bandleader of several bands who originated the Thursday night jams at Bert’s Marketplace with singer Dee Dee McNeil, believes there’s another reason — a jazzy elephant in the room — that can’t be overlooked: A large part of the genre has been shaped and cultivated by African-American culture.

“I know there’s a problem, so I can’t ignore it,” says Meyer, who is Caucasian. “I always pay attention to that and I think everyone should … not to think there’s no racism and everything’s hokey-pokey and fine and we all play together and love each other. Although the music is one of the forms that can bring people together.”

That seems to be the case at Bert’s, as the gentrification of Detroit is playing out Thursdays inside the airy club. “There are a lot more white people coming down than there used to be,” Meyer notes.

“It’s probably one of the most unique experiences in Detroit. There’s never been two nights the same in the 14 years we’ve been there, and there’s never been a bad experience. It’s been positive every week, how fun and beautiful the whole thing can be.

“Bert Dearing has been a jazz club owner in Detroit longer than any other. [The late Clarence Baker sold Baker’s in 1996.] He’s survived some tough times, and deserves a lot of credit for helping to keep jazz alive in Detroit.”

Detroit’s Alluring Jazz Jewels

Jazz has survived and appears to be resurgent at Baker’s, where owner and onetime club manager Hugh W. Smith III and business partner Eric J. Whitaker are looking to more than double the capacity of their world-renowned, 99-seat nightspot in a new downtown location.

At present they’re faced with an embarrassment of pitches: Since announcing their interest in working with, among other parties, Detroit land baron Dan Gilbert’s real estate group to find their second home, “now we have several developers offering situations,” Smith grins, “and we are looking at all of them to see what is best for our customers and for Baker’s.”

The competition has pushed back their timeline. “Of course we want to be in the middle of a great development, it’s going to be a five-star venue, and those things take a little time,” Smith says. “So we’re looking at 2015 to be online.” Yet Smith, who says he first entered Baker’s Keyboard Lounge as a music-hungry 17-year-old from Henry Ford High School, has no intention to forsake the original.

Cliff Bell’s

“I could almost shed a tear being grateful to be a steward of such a legendary jewel of Detroit,” Smith says. “Eric and I have a duty to keep it a traditional jazz club, to continue the great legacy left by Clarence Baker. We don’t want to change Baker’s at all. Baker’s is Baker’s.”

A great jazz club should have two things: great acoustics and outstanding sight lines. Cliff Bell’s has neither, and co-owner Paul Howard was no jazz buff when he and two business partners became tenants in the long-shuttered, Albert Kahn-designed building in 2005. “And I can tell you that I’m still not,” he admits.

Yet Cliff Bell’s is an unqualified success. After stripping away decades of bad ideas and restoring the interior to its 1930s allure, there was only one logical choice for the room’s entertainment.

“I have to say that jazz in the club setting is absolutely the best music to experience live,” says Howard. “To be able to sit right upfront, 4 feet from the drummer, or right out in front of the saxophone, to be part of that experience so intimately, there is just nothing else like it.

“And this place has an effect on people. It’s Art Deco but it’s not cold,” Howard says. “You can sense the age and the history, but at the same time there’s a very young energy to the place.”

That’s due in large measure to entertainment director Phil Salatrik, to whom Howard has entrusted the musical menu. “If the music is good, people are captivated by it,” Salatrik says. “I just try to keep my finger on the pulse of what is going to entertain a Detroit audience, which for whatever reason has always been one of the hardest to impress.”

‘Each One, Teach One’

And Detroit’s talent pipeline keeps flowing. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz Ensembles provide structured training ground for young musicians, and through the leadership of world-class player/educators like Collins at Wayne State, Rodney Whitaker at Michigan State, and Robert Hurst at the University of Michigan, collegiate jazz programs in the region have gained national renown.

“Actually, growing up in Detroit was a very encouraging place to be a musician,” says bassist — and Distinguished Professor — Whitaker, who transformed jazz studies at MSU. “There are negative things in the city, but by and large most people love musicians. If you wanted to learn and play this music people would pay for your lessons if you couldn’t afford them! And it was full of folks like [pianist] Kenny Cox, one of my great mentors, who taught me the expression ‘each one, teach one.’ It’s about carrying on the legacy of mentoring. I was mentoring folks long I officially became an educator.”

Mack Avenue’s L.A.-based president, Denny Stilwell, sees the same phenomenon — even from long distance.

“Until I started working closely with Mack Avenue, I hadn’t spent much time in Detroit,” he says. “And when I go back I sense it every time, there’s just this great closeness there. I think the music community is such a tight-knit group. Everybody generally supports everybody else, everybody works on everybody else’s projects, and there’s a very nice, robust spirit of collaboration I enjoy witnessing.

“Los Angeles, where I live, is so spread out geographically that it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, it’s sometimes hard to feel that community even though it’s the entertainment capital of the world. But in Detroit, there’s this great focus on the music and it’s such a heartbeat of the city, it’s just a nice experience.”

“There’s a lot of good stuff going on in Detroit,” concludes Armstrong. “I’m not leaving. I’m going to stay around here.”

1. Rodney Whitaker:

Ad-libbing MSU’s TurnAround

Jazz is the art of improvisation, so in theory, the better the musician, the better he should be at winging it. And Detroit native Rodney Whitaker is universally lauded as one of the finest jazz double bass players on the planet.

Yet no way could he have been prepared for all the ad-libbing he’d perform in 1995, when he was invited to become an adjunct faculty member in jazz studies at Michigan State University.

“When I got here they had kids and classes, but really the program had nearly fallen apart,” he recalls. After taking a few years to “stabilize” the program, he thought, “How do I grow the program to make it world-class?”

Spartans’ will. Since Whitaker assumed leadership of the department in 2000, the jazz program has soared to international renown. He procured a $1 million endowment last year from the Michigan State University Federal Credit Union to bring guest artists to campus every semester to tour the state with MSU’s jazz ensemble.

Describing himself as “a reluctant bass player,” he started on violin at age 7. When an instructor at school thrust the instrument into his hands, Whitaker embraced his true calling. “I remember summers where I practiced six to eight hours every day, to the point where my parents would say, ‘Why don’t you go outside and do something else?’ ” he says.

He has appeared on more than 200 recordings and performed on countless tours with the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard, and his answer to how he maintains his schedule is a delightful play on words.

“When you’re a musician, you’re paid by the volume,” Whitaker explains. “So if you want to be successful, you have to work a lot.”

NOTE: For more on Whitaker, including a link to his latest recording, click here.

2. Marcus Belgrave:

Detroit’s Jazz Ambassador

Says noted jazz chronicler and former Metro Times editor W. Kim Heron: “He brings a jolt of sly electricity to any bandstand. And you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who surpasses him when it comes to scouting, nurturing, and promoting young or underappreciated talent.Thanks to swift action by Detroit Police, the man and his horn were reunited at a local pawnshop days later — and the jazz world breathed a collective sigh of relief. For if there is one man whose trumpet must be treasured and preserved for the ages it’s Belgrave, the 78-year-old Jazz Master Laureate of Detroit, the city’s “Mr. Jazz.”

Marcus Belgrave

Although Belgrave is inextricably bonded to this city, he is a native of Chester, Pa. He was tutored by the great Clifford Brown and soared to prominence as a teenage sensation in Ray Charles’ touring band.

“I was traveling around the world with Ray doing one-nighters and I was always searching for someplace I could rest, because the road was rough,” he says in his deliciously raspy jazz whisper. “There were three places I thought I could make work for me, the three D’s: Dallas, D.C., and Detroit [but] the music was so vibrant here. You had all kinds of blues, you had avant-garde, hard rock, jazz, everything. So I chose this Big D.”

In the 1960s, Belgrave became a studio musician for Motown Records. But since founding the Detroit Jazz Development Workshop a decade later, his accomplishments and accolades in his genre are legion. Currently, he’s the master artist-in-residence for the Arts League of Michigan at the Virgil Carr Center in Harmonie Park.

Like many performers of his generation, Belgrave views jazz as a political force as well as a musical statement. “We seldom discuss that, but it’s always been a part of the political structure,” he says. “Because jazz is coming right out of the community, it’s for everybody.”

3. Chris Collins:

Directing the Festival

Chris Collins still refers to himself as a “bold decision,” although in his third year as artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival, the wisdom of his hiring is well documented.

Collins is the fifth person to call the tunes for the festival’s 35-year history tradition — but the first who legitimately could claim a spot on the main stage.

The saxophone and woodwinds performer has played with artists from Phil Collins to Mel Tormé and his successful jazz CDs include Jazz From the Shamrock Shore and Electo-Monk, Acoustic Funk.

Being the first working jazz musician to orchestrate Detroit’s signature music event “brings with it a slightly different perspective,” acknowledges Collins, who’s also been a professor at Wayne State University for two decades. “In addition to focusing on selecting artists according to excellence and creativity, we’re focusing on the timeliness of their projects.

“Jazz is all about the now. It’s about spontaneity and creating within the moment. So I send out a strong message to artists across the globe that this festival is interested in those artists for whom that particular year is a special year,” Collins notes. “That’s what the Detroit Jazz Festival is all about.”

Growing up on the east side of Detroit and St. Clair Shores, Collins, 49, says the festival was special in his own musical development. “I remember going to the first festival when I was in high school. I didn’t have private lessons. I learned by playing along to records. And all of a sudden, to be able to go downtown and hear these legends that I’d been listening to, my gosh! ”

As an educator, Collins is passionate about the festival’s year-round educational component — a jazz infusion program in six Detroit public schools andthe suburbs and events with artist-in-residence Joshua Redman — and his effort to spotlight Detroit-born performers on festival weekend.

“Few cities can boast the historical connection Detroit has with jazz,” states Collins. “So this festival centers on celebrating not only current artists but the legacy of Detroit jazz artists and their impact. It’s not just a jazz festival in Detroit — it’s the Detroit Jazz Festival.”

4. Mack Avenue Records:

Making Industry Inroads

Gretchen Valade. Business leader. Philanthropist. Patron of the Detroit Jazz Festival. Restaurateur. Songwriter. Songwriter?

Lesser known among her overall history, this daughter of a concert pianist mother has performed and composed music most of her eight decades. And when Valade was encouraged to record some of her original songs, she chose an option few of us could consider: With business partner Tom Robinson, she started her own label.

Thus was born Mack Avenue Records, celebrating its 15th anniversary as jazz music’s variation on Motown. In addition to such internationally acclaimed artists as Stanley Jordan, Tonight Show alum Kevin Eubanks, and Yellowjackets, Mack Avenue (“The Road to Great Music”) is also the stable for native-born legends Kenny Garrett and Rodney Whitaker among its more than 125 projects.

Charles Boles, the octogenarian Detroit piano giant who recorded his first CD, Blue Continuum, on Mack Avenue’s Detroit Music Factory label relates, “We were playing the Dirty Dog (the venue Valade also owns) and Gretchen came up and asked, ‘Have you recorded this group yet? Well, you’re going to record now. Is that all right?’ … Musicians out here can’t do that on their own.”

It all started when Valade hired famed Jazz Crusaders drummer Stix Hooper to produce some of her songs. “He suggested I start my own company,” she says. “I chose the name Mack Avenue because I liked the idea of using a well-known Detroit street, and it had a nice ring to it.”

Shortly after launching, the label hired an LA firm, Unisound Marketing, to assist with a CD release. Its founder, Denny Stilwell, was first hired as a consultant, then came on board as Mack Avenue’s president in 2006.

“We’d seen a lot of record companies come and go,” says Stilwell, who studied percussion at University of the Pacific. “Some with the greatest intentions but maybe not the business savvy or resources for the long run, some who had the resources but not the business savvy. With Mack Avenue there was a sense early on that the principals were really authentic in their approach, attention to detail, and focus on the artists.”

Mack Avenue, with 19 full-time employees, acquired LA-based labels Artistry Music and Rendezvous Music. The company umbrella also includes rootsy Sly Dog Records and Detroit Music Factory.

Valade concedes it’s tough to turn a profit in the record business, especially in a niche field like jazz, but “we’re making significant inroads.” Oh, and as to her songs? “We’re finally releasing a CD that features six of them, by Freda Payne,” she beams.